Memory  /  Argument

The Consequences of Forgetting

The reparations struggle is about remembering that America was built on slavery, but also about fighting for all working people.
The New York Public Library

The omission of slavery and the racism that it produced gives critical insight into the paucity of public consciousness and understanding about the ways the institution forever altered the history of African Americans.

What happens when the public is encouraged to forget that this was a country built and fortified on the enslaved labor of black people? This is the critical context within which we have to understand the ongoing discussion about whether African Americans are owed reparations.

The issue of reparations has become a political issue in the ongoing Democratic Party primary. Candidates have expressed varying degrees of openness towards the idea as they jockey for the prize of black votes in the presidential primary. What is meant by “support” or “exploration” of reparations is intentionally vague but the engagement with the issue opens up the political space for a larger discussion of its importance. Democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders has dismissed it as simply “writing out a check,” though he did later say that he would sign a bill to study the matter.

Sanders, who backs the most robust program of “racial justice” initiatives in comparison of all of his Democratic Party opponent, still emphasizes that he is most interested in supporting universal policies that can end the racial wealth gap between whites and African Americans, as well as the disparities in health care and beyond. In an interview on the topic of reparations he explained further, “What we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities — black communities, Latino communities, and white communities all over this country … I think that right now our job is to address the crises facing the American people in our communities.”

It is easy to get tangled up and lost in the narrow debate over how such payments would be made, but emphasizing the complexity of disbursement misses the larger significance of what the struggle to force an official acknowledgment of slavery and the racism that it produced, could have in the greater struggle for a deeper and more meaningful social transformation.

But that struggle for radical change in the United States is hindered by the failure of our society to grapple with the history of slavery. The official evasion of slavery as central to American history has produced profound ignorance about how racism has shaped the experiences of African Americans in slavery’s long aftermath.

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